2011, as I remarked at the end of 20111, was a pretty good year for music. 2012? A bit less so. Oh, it’s still a good time to be a fan of adventurous hip-hop, and perhaps even moreso. But where last year saw a wealth of releases by established acts polishing off and improving upon what they do, this year has been….well, largely disappointing. It’s not that there haven’t been things that have been good, it’s that there’s been a large number of things that were….ok. That had their moments. Not much has come around to blow me away. Although there’s been an uptick of that in the last couple of weeks, certainly, which is a good sign.
What follows are fifty of the songs that did manage to blow me away, or at least come close (in alphabetical order). As always, this list is my opinion, which makes it completely infallible. Any argument you may have with it is an argument you actually have with yourself, and I’m sorry about your self-loathing. Plus, this time you can download them!
and Part 3
Ab-Soul f. Kendrick Lamar “Illuminate” – Dr. Dre-approved collective Black Hippy have put together a remarkably consistent catalog in their first two to three years of existence, but Ab-Soul’s Control System might be their finest moment yet. Sounding more-or-less exactly like you’d expect a Dr. Dre endorse collective called Black Hippy to sound, “Illuminate” sees the collective’s two biggest talents together, over an early-nineties-backpack-rap style beat, with Ab-Soul’s rock-solid flow and some really unsettling barking/gasping/grunting noises.
Action Bronson “5 Minute Beats, One Take Raps” – To the other side of the country (Queens, specifically), a redheaded white man named after “Action” Jackson and Charles Bronson manages to seem really worried about his waistline. In the best possible way, I mean.
Fiona Apple “Hot Knife” – Only a few days old at the time of this writing, Fiona Apple has managed the rare-but-important trick of actually being surprising. People like to write more about Fiona Apple: The Spectacle, her weirdness, her “craziness,” etc. While her other albums were certainly fine, and rarely what was expected, they weren’t nearly as good. For the first time since her first album2, people have actually been talking about what the record sounds like. Which is nice.
The Big Sleep “Valentine” – It’s hardly news to say that a band is underheralded – it happens in pretty much every conversation everyone has ever had about bands, really. The Big Sleep, however, have been so consistently next-level that I feel like “underheralded” isn’t even an appropriate word. “Valentine” is emblematic of their best work – an off-kilter, untraditional build-up to a sneakily-anthemic chorus, some top-shelf drumming, and some weirdo noises and guitar sounds. The Big Sleep should be in everyone’s rotation. Act like you heard.
Danny Brown “Grown Up” – 2011 was an extremely auspicious year for Danny Brown, and everyone has already talked about all that. His lone solo contribution to 2012 so far3 is a herky-jerky trip through Danny Brown’s…well…herky-jerky sense of nostalgia. One of Danny Brown’s talents is his ability to find nonstandard beats to match his adenoidal bleat to, and it really serves the music impressively. Which isn’t a talent everyone can say they have.
Cadence Weapon “Jukebox” – it’s rare that you get a good scream these days, so kudos to that. I also support the continuing invasion of Canadian rappers almost as much as I support the continued invasion of bearded rappers. If a bearded canadian turns up on datpiff soon, it’s basically going to create a hip-hop black hole.
Cloud Nothings “Wasted Days” – The easiest point of comparison for Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory, sonically and generically4 is The Wipers, albeit with better mixing. But it’s the same jittery attack, and hoarse-shouty vocals, and also teeny-tiny frontperson. “Wasted Days,” then, is Cloud Nothings’ “Youth of America” – long without really having any of the hallmarks of really long songs (it’s all just the song, I mean. There’s a breakdown or whatever, but it’s not some long noodly thing.), obeying the band’s characteristic economy of form and arrangement, it’s even got some really impressive shouting (and is good for shouting along with), all of which is sort of what you look for in a rock song, right?
The Cribs “Come On, Be a No-One” – which I suppose sort of suffers for being alphabetically right next to that Cloud Nothings song, actually. But where Cloud Nothings are an inspired kid out of Cleveland, the Cribs are former also-rans from the mid-00’s crop of post-punk-inspired bands about which much ink was spilled, and most of whom neither survived nor aged well. The Cribs, who were never really standouts of a movement that wasn’t really ever a movement in the first place, managed to take their period of not really being the focus of anyone’s attention to figure out how to maximize their impact, and “Come On, Be a No-One” is more viscerally satisfying than anything else I’ve heard by them.
Curren$y “Fly Out, Pt. Deux” – The Stoned Immaculate was Curren$y’s bigger, “official” bid in 2012, but for my money, Muscle Car Chronicles, perhaps because it was so small and unassuming, was actually the better record, especially the “Fly Out” suite. Like Star Wars movies or seasons of Babylon 5, it’s the middle part that’s the best.
Death Grips “Hacker” – Death Grips clawed their way out of nowhere last year, with a mixtape on which usually-drummer Zach Hill mined the palpable (but easy) energy of old punk records (and “Interstellar Overdrive”!) while someone who sounded really, really upset occasionally shouted intelligible words over the top. This year’s The Money Store was largely the same (with samples that were less-well-known), and works as a self-contained burst of really aggressive hip-hop, until its last song, “Hacker,” which sounds like the music you’d play at Abby Hoffman’s dance parties. I mean, theoretically. If Abby Hoffman was alive and had dance parties at which you played angry rap music. The table’s flipped, now we’ve got all the coconuts, bitch.
Dirty Three “You Greet Her Ghost” – A rare success story in 2012, Dirty Three managed to scrape the rust off their limbs5 and put together the sort of record that was much more than we could have hoped, especially considering their last record, Cinder, was not….well, it wasn’t very good, is what I’m trying to say here. Toward the Low Sun was very good, taking the more-intuitive approach the band had developed and reintroducing themselves with some stripped-back, unpolished ensemble playing. “You Greet Her Ghost” had lots of competition on the record, and it just occurred to me that I suppose I don’t have to limit myself to one song per band per year, since I’m the one that makes the rules and stuff, but you know what? I already have, so you’re all just going to have to go thirsty out there in the desert with your one goddamned Dirty Three song. Maybe if you were better people, you’d have already bought the record. God, this is why you’ll never have anything cool.
Disappears “Fear of Darkness” – You know, you’d think it would take more than just sharing a drummer to make a band sound an awful lot like early-nineties Sonic Youth, but I guess it wouldn’t! Actually that’s not fair. This sounds like early-nineties Sonic Youth fronted by Scott McCloud of Girls Against Boys. Or, alternately, like Girls Against Boys. Anyway, it’s much better than the game of spot-the-influence it inspires, and having a great drummer actually does this record a world of good compared to their other ones, especially on the good songs.
Dr. Dog “That Old Black Hole” – I’m relatively happy to see the rise of rock bands that deal almost exclusively in great singles, but kind of dismayed that that is apparently not enough, and that we’re still having to force things into albums. I mean, practically I get that you want people to have heard your other songs before they come to your shows, but there should be less emphasis on the album. Rock bands should consider a career more like a sixties soul singer, or a prewar jazz musicians: just put out four singles a year or whatever, and make them better. Anyway. That’s neither here nor there. Dr. Dog are from Philadelphia, “That Old Black Hole” is a great song.
El-P (featuring Mr. Mothafuckin’ eXquire & Danny Brown) “Oh Hail No” – It was a good year for EL-P, who put out a great record of his own and a great record of Killer Mike’s. He and MME have an impressive interplay (they should do more stuff together, seriously), and Danny Brown’s “stop the show” verse manages to sound appended but not tacked-on, which is a really weird structural decision in the first place.
Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames “Old LA” – Another legitimate surprise, this seemed like a weird poor-man’s-Mermaid Avenue right up until its release, when it turned out to have almost nothing in common with Jay Farrar’s former-bandmate’s run-up to the same idea. A set of songwriters surprisingly6 well-suited to the material at hand, “Old LA” (sung by Parker) is both the best example of what they do that works so well, and the best song on the set. I would be satisfied if all of these people just broke up their existing bands and did this for the rest of their careers.
JK Flesh “Idle Hands” – It was hard to excited about a record that was billed as “Justin K. Broadrick’s Dance Album”, and downright baffling that he was releasing it under his old Godflesh name. Turns out, upon hearing it, that that’s more-or-less exactly what it is: a “dance” record by the guy from Godflesh. I can’t imagine what sort of dancing one would find oneself wanting to perform for this song, but if any of you feel up to it, I’d appreciate video. Thanks in advance.
Future “Same Damn Time” – Future actually could have made the list twice, as it came down to the wire between “Same Damn Time” and “Birds Take a Bath7.” In the end, “Same Damn Time” won because: 1) it’s got swearing in the title and 2) multitasking is a very important skill. Also “Birds Take a Bath” loses because I’m pretty sure it’s not actually about actual birds taking an actual bath, and I don’t like to listen to the lyrics close enough to solve the metaphor, which is probably just depressingly raunchy anyway.
Future of the Left “Beneath the Waves an Ocean” – As funny as Andy Falkous’ takedown of Pitchfork’s negative review of The Plot Against common Sense was, it was also hard not to see it as a face-saving measure – the equivalent of flipping out on someone in prison so that you don’t continue to get fucked with. Future of the Left has never been a particularly strong album band – Travels With Myself and Another was somewhat more consistent than Curses, and The Plot Against Common Sense is something in between. It also, interestingly, continues Future of the Left’s habit of releasing not-the-best song as the first single: “Small Bones, Small Bodies” instead of “Suddenly a Folk Song”, “The House that Hope Built” instead of “Arming Eritrea”, and now “Polymers are Forever” instead of “Beneath the Waves an Ocean.” “Ocean” is another of FOTL’s bizarro-anthems: a song that sounds like it means everything in the world, albeit rather impenetrably.
Great Lake Swimmers “The Great Exhale” – “The Great Exhale” by the Great Lake Swimmers is just Great. It’s even Double-Great. It’s from a Great album, it’s a Great song, everything is just Great. Great Great Great.
Guided by Voices “Doughnut for a Snowman” – Actually, the best song on Let’s Go Eat the Factory was “The Unsinkable Fats Domino,” but that was released as a single in 2011. Robert Pollard could teach Andy Falkous a thing or two about advance singles, man. Actually, I’d kind of like to sit in on that lesson.
Gunplay “God Damn (featuring Ace Hood and Torch)” – As aggressive as his nom de rhyme, Gunplay made a nigh-perfect mixtape8, topped off by a single with swearing in the title which, I’ve already stated, I’m a big fan of. Can’t get enough swearing in the title. Also, the chorus, which is all swearing.
Himanshu “Womyn” – This is, quite specifically, the version without Childish Gambino. I will sing the praises of Community until the skies falls down around my ears, but maaaaaan, fuck Childish Gambino. Anyway. “Womyn.” It’s a good song.
Hodgy Beats “Cookie Coma” – Between his own Untitled EP and Odd Future Vol. 29, it’s been a good year to be Hodgy, previously known as “the other guy from ‘Sandwitches,’ the guy that can’t stop laughing at everything.” Last year the Odd Future talk focused around Tyler, the Creator, who is always more willing to be a spectacle than a rapper, and therefore is a great ringleader. What’s interesting is that it turns out the people he’s surrounded himself by in his collective have blossomed (Mike G and Domo Genesis also had great moments this year) around him. Hodgy wins the spot because Hodgy got the best song, though.
Imperial Teen “Runaway” – Imperial Teen have long been a band that exist at the outermost fringe of stuff that I’m aware of. I mean, I know who they are and stuff, and I always seem to be made aware of when they’ve got a record out, but I don’t think I’ve actually sat and listened to one of their records all the way through at this point. Nevertheless, “Runaway” is a super-great bit of power pop, and if their other singles were this good, I’d have been paying attention for a lot longer.
The Internet “Ya Know” – The Internet might be the most interesting, on paper, part of Odd Future – making trip-hop, or something like it, some fifteen years after people stopped doing that, as well as avoiding pretty much any of the usual things associated with the crew they’re a part of, The Internet hasn’t really managed to pull everything together consistently. This, their contribution to the second Odd Future tape, is very much a step in the right direction. The tape itself is much better than vol. 1 (not saying much), and, as I said back at Hodgy, has some great moments from some of the more Junior members of the crew (and a thoroughly perplexing one from Frank Ocean. Oh, and the return of Earl Sweatshirt, but you already heard about that shit anyway).
Japandroids “The House That Heaven Built” – At their best, Japandroids don’t “write songs” – they write computer viruses for your brain, that get in there and rewire the workings and compel you to spontaneously feel that everything people have ever said about the transcendent power of rock music has been true, that two Canadians can, in fact, change the world on more-or-less a lark, and that just because something isn’t breaking new ground, or being creatively challenging doesn’t mean it can’t have all the weight of Moses’ own tablets. Also: whoa-oh-oh-oh-ohoh-oh-oh.
Carly Rae Jepsen “Call Me Maybe” – One of the signs of pop music’s recovery from the doldrums of the last couple of years is that it’s been a year of repeated ubiquity by people who weren’t formerly-established: fun. – who have spent years getting flogged by the industry, only to finally have it pay off – by aping Queen, Gotye (whose song spent months climbing the chart on its video) by aping Sting10, and finally, my girl Carly Rae. “Call Me Maybe” may not actually be one of the best songs qua songs, but it’s rare that something is so instantly aflame, and then so instantly irritating. She’s a former Candian Idol contestant, she’s Bieber-endorsed, she’s adorable in the most obnoxious way possible, and people hate her. I don’t really understand why, but then I don’t ever understand people. Besides, she’s worked with The Roots more times than Gotye. Nyeah.
Killer Mike “R.A.P. Music” – Man. Killer Mike made an underrated record last year, and then this year got super-noticed and you know what? This shit is still underrated. R.A.P. Music is a phenomenal record, and the title track is one of the trickiest things to pull off: a self-aware anthem that isn’t particularly stupid. Basically this song and “The House that Heaven Built” are the only anthems anyone ever needs to write again, and we’re good.
Lambchop “2B2” – I have a real affinity for what I’m going to call “old people records.” There’s something about tracking the way that the product of the creative process changes over time. Lambchop has kind of always seemed like it was made of aging people, and he’s really grown into that idea. Also Lambchop always deserves points for being weird in a completely nonstandard way. I suppose, loosely, that Bill Callahan and Will Oldham are doing similar work, but Lambchop does it considerably more consistently, and is one of those rare beasts that almost has to be called its own genre. And yet, a song like “2B2” is as accessible and as pretty as anything else, despite being unmistakable and unique.
Lost in the Trees “This Dead Bird is Beautiful” – Lost in the Trees are a hard band to talk about. They make nice music with some impressive arrangements that’s all very structured and easy to listen to, pretty and pleasant and moving. The problem is that they’re not as boring as all that makes them sound, and also that their albums aren’t very good except for the good songs. So. Uh. This is a good song.
Machine Death “Three Inches Above the Floor” – An Australian noise duo who got my attention by being part of the excellent Wood & Wire records and releasing their album for free. The whole record is incredible, but “Three Inches Above the Floor” best represents what it is that they do. Actuallay, now that I think about it, noise music was another genre that had a good half-year.
Magnetic Fields “Andrew in Drag” – Magnetic Fields are already pretty much unclassifiable, which is nice. They’re also kind-of unreviewable. Stephin Merritt’s records are so deliberate, so meticulously planned and plotted and arranged that their certain to conform to his intentions, and it increasingly seems like whether or not they’re engaging or moving or entertaining is beside the point, which makes it really hard to decide how good they are. Anyway. This is a good song mainly because it’s funny.
The Men “Oscillation” – I think that The Men should tour with J.D. Samson’s MEN, just to make people even more confused. The Men put out a fine record early in the year, and showed some impressive stretching-out abilities that made me think maybe they should be doing more things like this. I mean, their punchier songs are fine, too. Just not as good.
Metro Zu “Wet” – “Wet” is a good song, with a particularly sick beat, but oh my god Metro Zu has the most irritating web presence I’ve ever encountered. It is all but literally impossible to gather any information on them, and the scope and amount of material they’ve released is bordering on the absurd, which I guess is fine, but it makes almost impossible to follow them. Shame. The mixtape this was from was really good. Good luck finding it!
MV & EE “Workingman’s Smile” – In Our Band Could Be Your Life, somebody (Gerard Cosloy, maybe, although also possibly Lou Barlow) says of J. Mascis (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the thing that made his work so impressive was his ability to create a synthesis of all the different and disparate kinds of music that he listened to in such a way as to make it all one thing. I remember thinking that was a really admirable quality, and also that it doesn’t apply to J. Mascis even one little bit, because seriously homeskittle sounds like Neil Young who used to play in a punk band. Anyway. I think it is true of Erika Elder, and especially Matt Valentine, and especially especially when they play together as MV & EE. Sometimes this is more compelling than others, and on Space Homestead it works particularly well.
Nas “The Don” – I’m sure the album this comes from is going to not be very good, but in keeping with post-brainworms Nas tradition, this single is phenomenal. “Daughters” was also in the running, but “The Don” wins mostly because I like it when someone makes a beat out of someone saying words. Which is a weird thing to like but hey, I DON’T NEED YOUR APPROVAL GET OFF MY BACK.
Neptune “Negative Reversal” – Neptune have made a billion records over the course of the last couple of decades, and I first heard them at the beginning of the year, and spent months catching up on their back catalog, which then conveniently landed me on this, their 2012 release. As inventive as anyone currently making noise music, they manage to avoid pretty much all of the traps that make noise bands samey and uninteresting – notably that this doesn’t sound improvised or temporary, but as designed and built as the instruments they construct themselves. A phenomenal record by a phenomenal band.
Oddissee “Ain’t That Peculiar” – Odd Renditions is perhaps the most accurately-named record in the world – it’s a series of remixes that the veteran rapper added vocals to, from all sorts of odd sources. It’s part of a flurry of EPs that Oddissee has released, in a vein that’s almost-entirely separate from the album coming out later this summer. It’s a great time to be a hip-hop fan, is what I’m saying. Some really interesting people are doing really interesting things with their careers.
The Pack A.D. “Body Parts” – The Pack A.D. sound a lot like The Black Keys, which is fine. The Black Keys did used to be a good band, after all. This song itself adds nothing particularly new or interesting, but does accomplish its nothing pretty well. It’s like an episode of Modern Family – it’s vaguely throwbacky, and probably kind of on-the-nose, but hard not to like anyway.
Kitty Pryde “Okay, Cupid” – If nothing else, Ms. Pryde gets credit for being the first rapper of any prominence to claim Odd Future as an influence11, and also putting another feather in the cap of “there’s no such thing as authenticity,” which, y’know, is a cap I wear proudly. The best thing about it, really, is that it’s kind-of impossible to tell if it’s “good” by any measure other than whether or not you like it – I can’t tell if she can rap, I can’t tell if she even cares. And that’s great. Especially given that if you’d told me “nineteen year old from Daytona, Florida” I would have run away screaming so hard that I ran into the sliding door and fell over dead like a confused seagull. There’s also probably something interesting about the coincident timing of “Okay, Cupid” and “Call Me Maybe,” each of which is a song that does things with the “pining for a boy” genre that’s mildly interesting, but this is already at 4,000 words and, frankly, you’re all sick of reading it by now, so I’ll save it for another time.
The Punch Brothers “Movement and Location” – By now you’ve probably heard the story of Chris Thile, and if you haven’t, there’s google. He got a documentary and everything. Anyway, the story of the forming of the band is a little bit interesting, but actually doesn’t let on how good they are. Innovations in bluegrass are few on the ground due to the nature of the genre, but coming along and taking the instrumentation and arrangement style and applying it to a modernist take on songs themselves (and even covering “Kid A” on record) is a helpful shift. This was probably my favorite record this year, with other contenders being “Patchwork Girlfriend” and “Clara.”
Santigold “Disparate Youth” – The internet has created a world whereby going a minute without a new record, or a new single, or somehow thrusting yourself into the public eye has a way of making you seem like a leftover from another era. And the gap from 2008 to 2012 almost does feel like a bridge over two different eras, although I couldn’t tell you why. Anyway, all of that is to say, I wondered a lot about how Santigold, whose first record was so out-there, so inventive that an entire fleet of other people swung in to basically ape what she was doing, would follow that up. Turns out she’d follow it up by continuing to do exactly what she does, and the world is a better place for it.
Todd Snider “New York Banker” – I don’t know if I have anything new to say about Todd Snider, really, I just really like this song. He’s got about six thousand albums, and this is a pretty good one, but if you haven’t heard East Nashville Skyline, it’s better. If you have, then you probably already have this.
Spiritualized “So Long You Pretty Thing” – Jason Pierce has a very, very particular skill: the long build-up to a chorus. “So Long You Pretty Thing” might even be the best example of that – he pushes his way through several verses and then gives you a bona-fide payoff at the end. There’s not a lot to say about this one either. Sometimes a song is just really, really good.
Stalley (featuring Curren$y) “Hammers & Vogues” – The finest rapper ever to hail from Massillon, Ohio and featuring a beard that makes lesser humans weep, Stalley is probably the most interesting member of Maybach Music12. He and Curren$y are actually a surprisingly good match here, and I hope they do more together.
THEESatisfaction “Enchantruss” – THEESatisfaction have been around for awhile, but I only just heard them on last year’s Shabazz Palaces record. Actually, judging by the fact that that gets mentioned in reviews a lot, I’m probably not the only one. Anyway, it’s nice to have them around, and “Enchantruss” is a slice of super-weird hip-hop crossed with super-weird R&B. They’re also a rare entirely-self-contained (they are responsible for their own vocals and their own production) hip-hop entity, which probably helps keep their offbeatness on point.
Twilight Sad “Dead City” – We do a lot of things to cope with our grief. The world no longer has an Arab Strap, or a viable electro scene, so we have to make due. Twilight Sad may be a real doll for the missing girlfriend of actual good music, but at least they’re a real doll, and not some weird blow up thing. Besides, asshole, you might actually like it.
White Hills “Robot Stomp” – I’m almost always underwhelmed by White Hills’ records, and I can’t in good faith recommend Frying on this Rock to you people. It’s alright, I suppose, but “Robot Stomp” is fucking awesome. It sounds like robots! And those robots are stomping! And it goes on for long enough for you to have yourself your own impressive stomp! Like a robot! A stomping robot! DAH DAH DAH DAH DAH DAH! YEAH!
Jack White “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” – Jack White broke up at least one of his bands and went and made his own record under his own name, with actual professional musicians, and the result was….well, it was exactly what you’d expect. It’s pretty good, and completely free of surprises. Which, really, is probably why you go to a Jack White record in the first place.
Xiu Xiu “Hi” – The greatest band formed thus far in the 21st century, I will pretty much never find myself with anything bad to say about Xiu Xiu. Toward the end of last year, they released what might have been their best single (“Sashay Away”), and the follow-up early in 2012….sounded nothing like it. “Hi,” the leadoff track and leadoff single from the album, is the first time you can properly apply the adjective “catchy” to the band’s work (although parts of Dear God I Hate Myself were close to it). It also manages to serve as an introduction to the band itself. Presumably you haven’t listened to all of these songs yet, and presumably you will skip around, but do yourself a favor: make sure to hear this one. If it catches, there are few bands in the world more rewarding to be a fan of, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s fun to replace the words with stuff anyway13.
And that does it, folks! The fifty songs from the kind-of-a-dud first half of the year! Enjoy them responsibly, and shout along to the good parts.
1 here, specifically
2 well, since the portion of the conversation about her first album that existed pre-”Criminal”
3 although that’s not to disregard his contributions to Ab-Soul and El-P’s records, both of which are fantastic.
4 Meaning “of the genre,” not “blandly or featurelessly”
5 You can’t prove they’re not robots.
6 albeit surprising for different reasons: I haven’t been impressed by a Jay Farrar vocal in years, I didn’t think much of Will Johnson in terms of folk music, Death Songs for the Living was not very good, and fuck Yim Yames.
7 so they could come out cleeeeeeeee-eeee-eeean
8 primarily because, and this is rare in 2012, it’s not too long. Way to edit yourself, Mr. Play.
9 probably not the real title
10 I actually like Gotye, that sentence was just to annoy dimoko.
11 I suppose I should point out that, as much of a skeptic I was about Odd Future having much of a continued presence after their arrival last year, this is about the nine billionth time I’ve mentioned them, so, uh. I guess they’ve got 2012, too.
12 but we’ll keep praying for Omarion anyway.
13 “if you’re a cat say hi/if you’re trying to chew on my pants say hi/if you’re currently pooping in a boooooox say hi”